Monday, July 5, 2010

Plastic Wrappings And Burried Beer Bottles

In Thimphu, Saturday is what we call the “saabji market” day. That is when a large portion of Thimphu’s population go to the Sunday market to buy their weekly grocery essentials. Now I think this is getting a little confusing. I mean buying saabji on a Saturday at a place called Sunday Market is not really straight forward. When did it all get so complicated? Saabji, by the way, means vegetable in Hindi.

Less than two decades ago, every one shopped for grocery on a Sunday and the place where all the vendors gathered to sell their vegetables came to be known as the Sunday Market. Thus, even though people now start to shop for their grocery as early as late Thursday afternoon (there I go again - what is so early about late Thursday afternoon?) and the Sunday Market is no longer the open air space that it used to be, the market place is still popularly known as the Sunday Market. Ironically, for the present day nose-in-the-air Thimphups, it is infra dignitatem to be caught shopping for grocery on a Sunday - the reason being that only the lowly bargain hunters shop for grocery on that day.

When a friend told me that she was at the Sunday market doing her weekly grocery shopping, I requested her to call me if those delicious cherry tomatoes were on sale. I like to slice them into half and dry them belly up in my dehydrator. A dash of these bone dry cherry tomatoes does wonder to enhance the taste of emma datsi during my treks.

After 20 minutes of waiting for her to call me back, I gave up and decided that if she ever did call back to give me the information, I would file it for use next year but for this year, I needed to go to the saabji market and find out for myself.

There were no cherry tomatoes on sale. May be it is too early in the season or may be the late Thursday afternoon shoppers bought them all. Well, no worry - I have no crying need for them just as yet. I know that they will become available in the next few weeks.

While strolling through the stands, I noticed that some one was selling bio-degradable shopping bags made of hessian cloth. They were well made and reasonably priced at Nu.35.00 a piece. But no one was buying them. That is a shame! Such an environmentally friendly, useful and chic product and no one was interested.

I checked my purse - I had exactly Nu.1,500.00 to my name - give or take few extra Ngultrums in small change. I handed the money to the vendor and told him that I am sponsoring Nu.1,500.00 worth of his bags and that he should distribute them free to everyone that passed his stall carrying plastic bags with the message that next time they come to the saabji market, they should use these bags and not the plastic bags.

While standing close by and overseeing the free distribution of the bags, one prospective recipient struck up a conversation with me:

The man; “Why are you giving these free?”

Me; “Because they are good for the environment and I want to try and help safeguard it"

The man; “How so”?

Me; “Because they don’t clog up the earth like the plastic bags do. If you continue to use the plastic bags, there will come a time when the earth can no longer support the growth of vegetables because she is infested with plastic shopping bags”.

The man; “But why are you spending your money to buy them and give them free?”

Me; “Because you are not spending yours”

In these times, giving free has become suspect. I think that is what they mean by “looking the gift horse in the mouth”.

Talking of the environment and preventing damage to it, I think we are not doing a great job in that area. Recently I was in the mountains of Dhur in Bumthang photographing people collecting Cordyceps. Huge environmental damage is being caused there. Mountain tops at altitude ranging from 15,000 – 17,000 ft. are now getting littered with Koka wrappings. Dwarf rhododendrons and a shrub bush known as “Paam” are being systematically cut down by the hundreds of Cordyceps collectors who use them for fuel wood. The scares grasses that are meant for the yaks are now being nibbled at by dozens of pack ponies thereby causing conflict between the pony drivers and the yak herders to whom the pastures belong.

During my trek in the upper Kheng areas early this year, something even more disturbing came to light. On my first day’s trek from Kheng Buli to Nimshong I came upon a small clearing in the middle of nowhere called Churmaloong where two brand new bamboo huts were being built. I was intrigued – why would any one want to build bagos in the middle of wilderness? There was already a ramshackle of a hut nearby - stocked with cases and cases of Druk 11,000 and Hit beer along with an assortment of goods for sale. In front of the hut was a plastic table that was getting misshapen from extended exposure to the elements and 4 plastic chairs neatly arranged - two on each side. Since it was already evening, I decided to set up camp for the night.

I asked the man who was building one of the bagos why he was building a house in the middle of wilderness. He told me that upon completion, the shop that was currently housed in the ramshackle would be run out of this bago. Alright, but what entrepreneurial genius causes a man to set up shop in the middle of a jungle instead of at Nimshong village which was just about 45 minutes away from where he is setting up shop? It was explained to me that this small clearing stood at the junction of two roads one of which lead to a number of villages on the other side of Mangdechu. So, what he meant was that he had a steady trickle of customers wanting to buy and drink his beer.

In the evening, I ordered some beer from the ramshackle shop - for my camera assistants and the pony men to drink. It won’t do to walk away without contributing to local commerce.

Behind the ramshackle, I saw a huge mound of empty beer bottles neatly piled up together. Curious, I asked the man; “How much do you get for those empty bottles when you deliver them to the scrap dealer in Buli?”. He said he got nothing for them. Surprised, I asked; “Why not? Everywhere else the empty bottles fetch a small token amount”. He said he does not sell the bottles. I asked why he didn’t sell them since his ponies would be without load on his way to Buli to replenish his stock.

Clearly the man was looking a little agitated at my pointed questions. I insisted on knowing the reason why he didn’t take the empty bottles to Buli to earn some extra money. After a while he accepted that he didn’t dare take the empty bottles to Buli because of fear of being fined and penalized for selling beer without a bar license. Selling beer or any alcohol in this country without a bar license is illegal.

I asked him; “Then what do you do with all the glass bottles that get piled up over a period of time?”

He replied; “I dig a trench in the ground and bury them in the forest”.

I was dumb founded! If this is true of a desolate place called Churmaloong, it must be true of lot of other places in rural Bhutan. Is it possible that this terrible practice is being replicated elsewhere in the country? Is it possible that hundreds of thousands of beer bottles are being quietly buried in our supposedly pristine forests all around the country? Can you imagine the extent of catastrophe that will be caused years from now? I shudder to think.

Littering the alpine regions with plastic wrappings and burying of beer bottles in trenches in the forests is simply appalling. The actors in this chain need to be made responsible. The manufacturers and distributors and resellers of beer and other alcoholic drinks need to be made accountable for every bottle they distribute in the market place. It can be done.
The Park Officials need to devise ways and means whereby the Cordyceps collectors are compelled to bring back all the plastic wrappings they generate during their hunt for the Cordyceps in the high altitude mountains. Should there be incidences of littering, they should be made accountable to clean up the area. This requires a little bit of extra effort from the Park officials - but it is enforceable and it can be controlled.


  1. It's indeed a shame to continue using plastic wrap and shopping bags when we have the knowledge and resource to do otherwise. In this specific case, we as educated folks just CHOSE to be IGNORANCE, and that's no excuse for that. It's simply carelessness and laziness.

  2. loved the write up and thumbs up for the environmentalist in you

  3. too bad i didnt get one of those bags for FREE. the red one is nice it wasn't there when i bought the brown one.

  4. Good pictures as usual, and an even better and well-meant message to complement them!

  5. Hi Kit, Sonam and Leki

    Thanks for the comments.

    Sonam, that red one was not on sale - it was given to me free by the vendor as a mark of appreciation :)